How Alcohol Affects Liver Health

The liver processes alcohol, using some of it for energy and getting rid of the toxins. When you drink too much alcohol, your liver can’t process it efficiently, which may lead to liver disease.

The body processes alcohol in the liver, breaking down toxins to get them out of your system. If you drink heavily, your liver won’t be able to keep up. It may become inflamed and develop fatty tissue that makes it less efficient. 

Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to liver disease, a life-threatening condition.

How Alcohol Causes Liver Disease

Three types of alcohol-related liver disease are fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and alcoholic cirrhosis. Heavy drinking can cause you to progress through these diseases in stages, but you may also develop one type without the others.

Alcoholic Fatty Liver

Alcoholic fatty liver is also called fatty liver disease or steatosis. It occurs when drinking prompts inflammation of the liver and excessive fat deposits. A fatty liver doesn’t work as well as a healthy liver—it has a harder time breaking down alcohol and other toxins. 

In many cases, people with a fatty liver don’t develop a more severe form of liver disease, and the condition is usually reversible if you stop drinking. 

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Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is a severe inflammation that impairs liver function. The liver may be swollen to the point that it cannot break down and excrete toxins. Liver cells may die. It’s a dangerous condition—especially in acute form, which can come on suddenly.

People with alcoholic hepatitis have a high risk of fatal liver failure. They should stop drinking as soon as they discover they have the condition. In some cases, the liver will heal once your alcohol consumption stops.

Alcoholic Cirrhosis

Alcoholic cirrhosis is a severe scarring of the liver that develops with chronic heavy drinking. Excessive alcohol intake causes liver damage, which forms scar tissue to repair itself. The more scar tissue there is, the more challenging it is for the liver to do its job.

Liver cirrhosis is an advanced stage of scarring (also called fibrosis) that puts you at risk of liver failure and liver cancer. You may need a liver transplant if your cirrhosis is severe. 

If you stop drinking, the progress of cirrhosis can be slowed down or stopped, but it cannot be reversed.

Signs & Symptoms Of Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

The signs and symptoms of alcohol-related liver disease may be mild to severe, depending on your condition and its severity.

People with alcohol-related liver disease may experience:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • abdominal pain or tenderness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • spider veins
  • itchiness
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • swelling caused by fluid buildup in the liver 
  • high blood pressure in the vein between the intestine and liver (portal hypertension)
  • cognitive impairment from toxins the liver can’t process (hepatic encephalopathy)

What Happens To Alcohol In Your Liver?

The liver breaks down alcohol into metabolites (smaller parts). The main metabolite is a toxin called acetaldehyde, which is quickly turned into acetate and used for energy. 

However, if you drink more than your liver can process or if your liver is impaired, you’ll have more toxic acetaldehyde in your system. Acetaldehyde causes inflammation and contributes to liver disease.

Drinking heavily also increases the presence of dangerous, unstable molecules in your system. These molecules (called free radicals) can be kept in check by antioxidants, but alcohol decreases your natural antioxidant levels, too.

Risk Factors For Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Some people drink a lot and don’t end up with a diseased liver. While it’s always a risk to drink excessively, some factors make it more likely that your liver will be seriously damaged by alcohol.

Risk factors for alcoholic liver disease include:

  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD): People who drink all day long or can’t stop once they start are extremely hard on their livers and have a higher risk of developing disease.
  • Gender: Women are more likely than men to get liver disease, and it’s less likely to resolve if they quit drinking.
  • Hepatitis C: People with hepatitis C (an inflammatory liver condition) are at a greater risk of getting liver disease from drinking.
  • Nutrition: Poor nutrition weakens your immune system. You’re more susceptible to disease if you eat poorly, whether that means unhealthy food (overweight) or not eating enough (underweight). 
  • Obesity: If you’re obese, your risk of liver disease goes up.
  • Binge drinking: Consuming a large amount of alcohol in a small amount of time is terrible for your liver. It increases your chance of developing liver disease. Acute alcoholic hepatitis can onset right after a bout of binge drinking.
  • Tobacco: Research shows that people who smoke tobacco are more likely to get liver disease than people who don’t.

How To Protect Your Liver If You Drink Alcohol

One of the best ways to protect your liver is to stop drinking, but even cutting back can help. The US Dietary Guidelines state that women shouldn’t have more than one drink in a day and men shouldn’t have more than two. These limits minimize (but don’t eliminate) the effect on your liver.

Maintaining a healthy weight and eating nutritious foods will boost your immune system so your liver will be able to function better. Water helps a lot with flushing out toxins, too.

You can avoid increasing your risk of hepatitis C (and liver disease) by not having unprotected sex or sharing needles if you use drugs by injection. 

If you take medication with alcohol, be sure it’s safe to do so. The liver processes most drugs, so mixing alcohol with them could be too much for your liver. Your healthcare provider can advise you on which drugs interact with alcohol.

Alcohol & Liver Health In Ohio

In 2021, over 2,000 people lost their lives to liver disease in Ohio. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 5,700 people die in Ohio each year from excessive alcohol use—many due to liver problems.

If you’re concerned that your drinking habits are too much for your liver, don’t wait until you’re sick to ask for help. Catching liver disease in the early stages or adjusting your alcohol consumption can save your life.

At Ohio Recovery Center, we work with you to create a treatment plan that sets you free from alcohol abuse and addiction. You’ll learn positive coping strategies, healthy behaviors, and new thought processes that lead to life transformation. 

Reach out to one of our specialists today to learn more.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,but%20rather%20a%20daily%20limit.
  3. Ohio Capital Journal

Written by Ohio Recovery Center Editorial Team

Published on: October 23, 2023

© 2024 Ohio Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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